It cost him a mere $100 a month to rent the first movie theater he ever managed, back in 1930s Minnesota. Over the next five decades, self-made impresario Ted Mann amassed and sold two cinema empires. In 1986, when he auctioned off his second major circuit of screens, then reportedly the largest independently owned group of theaters in the country—about 360 sites, including L.A.’s storied Chinese Theatre—the price tag was nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
The rags-to-riches bar graph doesn’t get much steeper than that, even in the movies. And as might be expected, Mann pushed hard to ascend it. ”People hated playing golf with him because he never finished a round,” says ex-Mann Theatres president Larry Gleason, who consults on distribution for MGM. ”He’d play six holes and decide, ‘I’m going back to work.”’ Once there, the onetime amateur boxer and lifelong fitness nut had a predilection for hanging out, post-workout, in robes that would constantly flop open, embarrassing folks who came to deal with Mann but concerning Mann not a whit. ”I wouldn’t call him a nudist,” says Gleason. ”But he was not shy.”
That brassy ethos helped the North Dakota-born Mann, who died from stroke complications, carve out an initial Minnesota-based theater chain by the end of the 1960s. He unloaded his first mini-empire to become a film producer in Hollywood, but the tedious nitty-gritty of development and shooting didn’t hold much excitement for him. ”He wasn’t one to come down to the set,” says director Daniel Petrie, who worked for Mann on Buster and Billie (1974), which starred Jan-Michael Vincent, and Lifeguard (1976), with Anne Archer and Sam Elliott. ”Ted wrote the check and left you alone.”
Mann plunged back into exhibition in 1973 when he took over a struggling national chain for $67.5 million, bought mainly with a huge bank loan. He nearly drowned in debt when the flexible interest rate he’d agreed to soared from 8 percent to 15, but strategy saved him. He got a lock on some of the most desirable single-screen theaters around L.A., including three sites in Westwood and Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. (He renamed the latter showcase Mann’s Chinese, setting off a wave of media critiques; only this year has the ”Grauman’s” been restored, thanks to a contract specifying it remain Mann’s until his death.)
Since every major director and studio exec in town wanted the largest screens in the highest-profile locations, Mann had a crucial leveraging tool. He used it to get better deals in out-of-state markets, where his theaters weren’t in such prime locales. ”Ted was a charismatic character,” says his old lieutenant Gleason. ”He would wine and dine the Spielbergs of the world, [and] the Terry Semels, the Barry Dillers…. He’d invite them out on Friday nights to drive around and look at the lines.”
Of course, this kind of local-politician tack wouldn’t work nearly so well today, when Hollywood shakers care much less about showing off at movie palaces in town and much more about maximizing screen counts at cookie-cutter multiplexes across the globe. As a result, indie-owner mavericks like Mann, who made up half the exhibition business three decades ago, have been squeezed to their margins. Today, big national and international chains control all but about one tenth of the industry.
By the early ’90s, Mann bowed out of theaters and focused on shifting more of his fortune—Forbes twice named him one of America’s richest people—to charitable causes. He started a cancer-care foundation at UCLA after his wife, actress Rhonda Fleming, lost a sister to the disease. “The only people Ted had no use for,” says his former producing partner, Ron Silverman, “were people he felt were, as he put it, ‘taking a free ride’ with their success. He believed in giving back.”
Sounds like a movie story you’d see playing at Mann’s—sorry, Grauman’s—Chinese.